Apple Valley, Costa Rican students pair up on climate change

  • Article by: ERIN ADLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 28, 2013 - 4:38 PM

A new School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley class will partner with another class to learn about climate change, leadership skills, world cultures and service learning.

How many different disciplines can you fit into one class?

A new project at the School of Environmental Studies (SES) in Apple Valley is taking “interdisciplinary” to another level, combining topics such as service learning, cultures around the world, leadership and climate change into a single class.

The course, called the Costa Rica Youth Leadership Program, is a yearlong elective funded by a University of Minnesota grant. After partnering with students from Costa Rica over Skype all school year, half of the 32 students in the class will go on a three-week trip to the country this summer.

The grant, administered through the university’s Institute on Community Integration, also stipulates that half of the students traveling to Costa Rica have some sort of disability.

“It is an interesting challenge to weave together all those pieces, but it’s fun,” said Jane Tunseth, who teaches the class. “It’s a fun intellectual challenge.”

The grant money comes through the American Youth Leadership Program, a U.S. Department of State international exchange program. Students in the class can earn college credit through the University of Minnesota as well, funded by the grant. Tunseth is using curriculum designed by several departments at the university and a nonprofit called World Savvy, as well as adding her own pieces.

Brian Abery, the coordinator of school-aged services at the Institute on Community Integration, said he and another professor wrote the grant because he saw that the American Youth Leadership Program “didn’t include very many programs for students with disabilities.” The institute’s goal is to encourage inclusiveness in education and other areas.

Thus, students in the class and who will go on the trip have a broad range of disabilities, from learning disabilities and mental health issues to cognitive or physical disabilities, Abery said.

“It’s a very, very heterogeneous group,” Abery said, which “reflects the fact that 10 percent of kids in schools have some sort of disability.”

The class also will increase students’ cultural competencies, so the students — all juniors — can understand how the things they do here in Minnesota affect people around the world, Abery said.

Tunseth said she’s focusing on developing the students’ leadership skills as well as service learning. Leadership is a focus at the school, she said. “It’s kind of a tricky word,” she said. “That’s what I hope students get, is that there are lots of different kinds of leaders and everyone can be a leader.”

The students will be meeting and learning virtually — through Skype, social media and other means — with students from the Liseo de Paos, a school in Alajuela, Costa Rica. The two classes will work to develop an environmental service project, and in the summer, about half of the SES students will meet the Costa Rican students and stay in their homes. While there, they’ll complete the service project they planned together.

Hunter Daraitis, a junior, said that even if he isn’t chosen to go to Costa Rica, he knows that “the class would give me a lot of knowledge anyway.” He said he’s excited about learning about other cultures and how Americans can interact with people from around the world.

Anna Selchow applied for the class because she was interested in the Costa Rica component. She has been to Ecuador and Peru and speaks pretty strong “survival Spanish,” Selchow said. “I think it will be really fun, because it’s not your typical class.”

Some students not selected to go on the trip might choose to go anyway and pay their own way, Tunseth said. There also may be activities organized by the U for the students who stay here.

So far, Tunseth said, she has spent the first weeks explaining all of the class’ components. Just learning about all the different agencies involved in climate change and how they approach problems, from the government to a nonprofit to a school in another country, is educational for students, she said.

“What’s unique about it is, like most issues that students will have to solve when they’re out on their own, it’s so complex,” she said. “That’s the part I’m fascinated by — there are so many angles and players to the issue, which is the way to solve climate change.”

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